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Reflections on a New Journey

'23 Update

The Art of Embracing Interruption - Afternoons with Elvis


Our closest Dominican friend is a young guy named Elvis, an unusual nickname for a 22 year-old language student who loves “las baladas”  more than rock and baseball far more than both. There are lots of things I love about Elvis. He is smart, enthusiastic, responsible and seeps charisma and energy. He loves his family, God and fried plantains. He never complains about the fact that his family has little but expects a lot from himself in his young life. He has provided a softer landing in the DR for us with his friendship, humor, and, of course, the informal lessons in Dominican espanol. There is also a skill which Elvis is teaching us which has been both important and very hard to learn – the Art of Embracing Interruptions. 


In the United States, interruptions are no longer welcomed in any area of society, and for the younger generations, the word is especially taboo. Our daily schedules, rigorously wrested into 45-minute increments, have a magnetic repulsion to interruptions. How could the cat possibly get sick this morning? What, the man coming to clean the gutters has heart palpitations  and can’t come today? What is our elderly neighbor thinking, bringing a pie to the front door when we were about to leave for the gym? If our daily planner has an hour-long gap, that white space makes us nervous. There must be SOMETHING we can squeeze in – maybe a car wash or podcast set to 1.75x. We worship multi-tasking and crammed schedules and are addicted to the adrenaline rush of a defeated checklist. That is NOT our reality any longer.


We never know when Elvis will show up on his bike. All of a sudden, the dogs begin to bark at the gate and there he will be. It might be 11:00, 2:30 or 4:00. He arrives with a big grin and time to chat. I can feel myself take a deep, involuntary breath, turn aside from the mostly inconsequential project in progress, and slap myself internally for the moment of wishing that he hadn’t come. After a glass of water, Elvis sits down with us at our outside table and we begin to talk about all sorts of things – the conversation unwinding like a lovely ball of yarn. He updates us on his mother’s improving health, his brother’s life at a baseball academy in Santo Domingo, his grades at the local university, church, the orphanage, what the girls will call him. We speak with faltering Spanish which often makes him laugh. We remind him that the letter “j” in English does have a sound. Sometimes we sit in silence watching the dogs chew on a coconut shell.


Ninety minutes! My cerebral planner is screaming at me…”You have been doing “NOTHING” for 90 minutes! Get rid of him (of course politely) and try to recover part of this lost day! Sometimes the reprimand was so insistent that I was sure he could hear my mind’s turmoil as it roiled, struggling to regain control of what had been lost. When I mentally typed in “what is the gain of this interruption?,” my brain immediately sent the message –”.....this search did not yield any results.”


In these past nine months, I have worked hard to shush the danger flares of my American brain when Elvis rides up to visit – now it only offers up a whimpering beep of resignation. Elvis’ impromptu visits are not because of laziness in his own life or lack of consideration for ours. He is (without knowing it!) teaching us a lesson that is necessary to learn about his culture and people - time is NOT a dictator but the pleasant servant who says, “what can I do for you?” Time is never wasted when it is spent with people.  It should be lavishly poured out and enjoyed immensely, savored like a rich dessert which lingers on the tongue and is remembered. Our afternoons with Elvis bring the same degree of pleasure.


After the next time he leaves, I am going to write down “Afternoon with Elvis” in my planner – and cross it out. I still miss the adrenaline rush.

Jan - Feb
'22 Update

Does anyone remember the popular catchphrase “Be An Outsider?” The intention of this  tagline, created by a major outdoor lifestyle company, was to encourage/motivate indoor-obsessed Americans to consider any pursuit outside of their four sheet-rocked walls or two AirPods (inside those four walls). Unknowingly, this pithy advertisement reflects an interesting reality of modern American culture – in the US, one gets to choose whether or not to be an outsider.  


In contrast, most people in the Dominican Republic are outsiders, like it or not. Living shoulder to shoulder with the outdoors is not usually a choice in this beautiful, wild land but the better option for most.


The rainy season has recently ended, and during those two months, rain is boss.  When the rain blows in, it is as if a monstrous dam has broken free in the heavens, pounding the earth in a furied frenzy without care for anyone or anything. By the time the storm is spent, everything is limp and bedraggled, sodden and sad. This includes the sheet metal and stick homes of many people in our village – the kind with mud floors. After a storm, everything comes outside to dry off – clothing, furniture, and people. Ladies bustle about, briskly brooming.


Some of the ways in which people live as outsiders here resemble typical American culture thirty or forty years ago. Most kids walk to school, there are no twisting mazes of SUV’s, AC running on high, parents lost to Netflix on their iPads. Few people (including us) have air conditioning, and being outside can provide shade, possibly a breeze, and entertainment. Video games and cellphones are a luxury most don’t have, but stickball at the edge of the street is absolutely within reach. 


In our village, there are three very large (and unmarked) speed bumps. A few older folks, or sometimes bored teenagers, sit in plastic chairs by the bumps, staring at each self-conscious traveler as they grind to a near halt. A wheelchair-bound man is nearly always outside his home, gently waving, and men congregate at the intersection of two roads to not work and keep up with the news. Chicken and pork vendors tend their rotisseries on the sidewalk. Even dogs understand that home here usually means a field, rooftop, outdoor lot, or if they are lucky, the entryway to a villa.

The outside way of life in the Dominican Republic is, of course, economically-driven as many Dominicans rely on what the land provides for some of their food. People here are botanists, self-taught professors of their land. They tell us we are “rich” for the many plantain trees in our yard and happily cut huge bunches for boiling or frying. They uncover a massive root vegetable, similar to a yam. Guava trees, wild cranberries, lemons, mangoes, avocados, limes, limes, and more limes – they know exactly when to pick, store, eat and restore. They understand that certain plants are important to their hair, their health, and their tranquilo. 

Being an outsider isn’t so bad after all.

December '22 Update

Learning a new language as an adult is similar to getting gum stuck on the bottom of your shoe – the more you work at it, the more obstinate it seems to become. Before long, a wrestling match ensues, and eventually you have a stretchy mass of gum stuck to your fingers, resisting all attempts at control. Such is my relationship with the Spanish language.


One of the first questions, understandably, which people asked Mark and me when we chose to move to the Dominican Republic to start Sycamore House was if we knew how to speak Spanish. The answer was “not yet.” Nearly three years later, with a wake of countless lessons, classes, flash cards, videos and podcasts behind me, the answer remains the same. 


To be fair, Spanish is often more sensible than English. What kind of language has the words ``cough, bough, and dough,” sharing four of five letters but with completely different pronunciations? Whoever thought to spell the number between seven and nine like that? We won’t even get into homophones – although the pair of pears needed paring before going into the pie.


Spanish has its own idiosyncrasies. There are multiple tenses for verbs, and many verbs are irregular or reflexive. What does preterite even mean? Who says “It is pleasing to me to walk in the park” with a straight face? The articles “por” and “para” have about ten meanings each and no one really knows when to use which. Those little buggers have been the cause of many frustrating sessions on Duolingo. My tutor tells me that Spanish speakers like to use a lot of words to say the same thing. No kidding. Pronouns and articles are everywhere, sprinkled around indiscriminately like poppy seeds on a bagel. Don’t even get me started on the accent marks, the “n-yeah,” and the very real problem that all nouns are either masculine or feminine. Why? Why are cities feminine and hair masculine?


Our minds have the natural tendency to appreciate comfort in their capacity. The mental folders in our cranial desktop are neatly ordered and titled. We tell ourselves that the inbox is full, storage is limited, and the operating system is old and slow. Nothing shatters that rationale like learning a new language. Wires get spliced, criss-crossed, sparks fly, and new lines are established and added to the fuse box. Sometimes I am literally tongue-tied because my brain simply cannot process the information I am learning. At those times, I can almost feel mental plaque shattering.


So, despite my grumbling, I will go get my flash cards and not spend too much time wondering why there are Spanish verbs for having breakfast, lunch and dinner!


Espanol, alguien?

-- Julie

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